Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Comments in Support of CFPB’s Complaint Narrative Proposal
Docket Number: CFPB-2014-0016
Submitted by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
Sept. 22, 2014
Director Richard Cordray
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
1700 G Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20552
Dear Director Cordray:
Introduction. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) is a nonprofit consumer education and advocacy organization, established 22 years ago in 1992 and located in San Diego, California.
The PRC takes complaints and questions from the general public on a variety of informational privacy issues. These include: debt collection, financial privacy, online privacy, social media, medical records, employment topics, among others.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has invited comments regarding its proposal to include complaint narratives in its public complaints website. Individuals would be given an opt-in choice regarding the inclusion of their narratives in the public-facing complaints website.
Support for narrative proposal. The PRC strongly supports the CFPB proposal to include complaint narratives in its public complaints database, and has signed on to joint comments of 48 consumer groups, submitted September 19th, in support of the agency’s proposal.
There are many arguments in favor of the inclusion of narratives in the CFPB’s complaints website:
The CFPB’s current complaints database provides minimal descriptive information – just tags such as “consumer loan,” “debt collection,” and “mortgage,” accompanied by descriptors such as “fees,” “bill disputes,” and “advertisements.” These do not adequately describe what the consumer has experienced. The narrative will add meat to those bare bones. Director Cordray has stated that the complaint narrative is the “heart and soul” of a complaint. We agree.
The fact that a government complaint database exists publicly, one that includes complaint narratives, serves as a strong incentive for financial companies to adopt best practices and enhance customer service in all of their dealings with consumers.
Narratives will enable individuals to make better financial decisions in the marketplace. The descriptive information in complaint narratives will enable consumers to assess what the company has done, or not done, to resolve complaints. This will support consumers’ ability to make careful decisions about financial services they wish to use.
Narrative information will also be useful to others who wish to analyze complaints, including consumer advocates, academic researchers, and other regulators.
And finally, based on our own experience in handling consumers’ complaints, we have observed that many consumers have difficulty finding the precise words to explain their situation clearly. The availability of narratives in the CFPB’s online complaints database will enable such individuals to identify scenarios that match theirs, and help them describe their own situations better. As time goes on, the quality of complaints will improve.
We believe that the steps proposed by the agency to ensure that personally identifiable information is omitted from narratives are sufficient to ensure personal privacy is protected in those complaint narratives posted publicly. These include the use of technology tools to search for PII in narratives and scrub them of personal information, in addition to manual inspection to remove text that might accidentally identify individuals.
Recommendations. We add the following recommendations regarding the expansion of the complaints database to include narratives:
As mentioned above, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse invites individuals’ complaints and provides information and referrals to enable consumers to resolve a variety of privacy-related matters. We also encourage these individuals to submit their complaints to the appropriate state and/or federal agency, including the CFPB. Many other consumer-oriented organizations do the same.
We have learned in our two decades of fielding complaints from the public that some individuals are unable to contact agencies to submit their complaints, or they are uncomfortable doing so. Perhaps they lack online access, or feel their writing or language skills are not sufficient to enable them to describe their complaint adequately. Therefore, we recommend that the CFPB’s online complaint intake form include a box that can be used by the complainant’s representative to communicate with the CFPB. This representative might be a consumer advocate, a legal aid attorney, a housing counselor, and so on.
We recommend that consumers be able to note specific details in the complaint that they wish to remain private. And individuals should be given the opportunity to return the complaint to a private setting.
A complaint is not a static event in time. The individual might have additional experiences at a later date that they wish to report to the CFPB. Or perhaps the situation has been resolved by the company. As such, individuals should be able to update their original complaint.
We strongly favor the practice that the CFPB has proposed in which the company’s response will be posted at the same time and alongside the consumer’s complaint. Companies must be instructed to ensure that PII is not included in the narrative of their responses. Further, we recommend that the CFPB use the same PII-search algorithms and scrubbing techniques on company responses as it uses on the narrative portion of consumer complaints.
We encourage the CFPB to engage in periodic review of the complaints system, including the inclusion of complaint narratives, in order to determine if the complaint process is functioning as expected and to identify where improvements can be made. We would recommend that you invite comments and suggestions from those stakeholders who interact with the online complaints system, including a sampling of complainants, consumer advocates who assist individuals in filing complaints, representatives of companies that have responded to individuals’ complaints, and researchers who have used the database for studies regarding the nature of individuals’ complaints.
PRC’s own experience with an online complaint process. In the remainder of our comments, we discuss how the PRC has addressed a similar issue, albeit on a much smaller scale, in inviting complaints from the public.
In 2013 the PRC launched its Online Complaint Center that enables individuals to go through a directed process on our website to submit their complaints and questions. Our mid- to long-term goal is to eventually post the narratives – the complaint descriptions – on our website for those individuals in which affirmative consent has been given.
An additional goal has been to improve the quality of the privacy-related complaints that we receive.
Because we eventually want to post complaint narratives on our website – as an opt-in choice – we are particularly concerned that the narratives contain no personal information.
At three different points in the online complaint process, we remind the user to not include any personal information in the narrative.
(1) We post a full screen just prior to the page in which individuals describe their complaint. It is headed with the word “Important!” in large, bold face. We provide a list of the types of PII which must not be included in the narrative:
the identity of the complainant and any other individuals
more broadly, personal information about other individuals
Social Security number
financial account numbers
driver’s license number
(2) On the page in which individuals are able to review their complaint before submitting it, they are reminded again that the description must not contain personal information.
We have generally succeeded in ensuring that complaint narratives contain no personal information. But because individuals are sometimes passionate about what they are complaining about – and because some may not have read the instructions thoroughly – we carefully review each narrative and remove any PII that might remain.
Conclusion. In closing, we have found that it is possible to obtain complaint narratives from the public that are devoid of personal information – and protective of complainants’ privacy.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit these comments in support of the CFPB’s proposal to include complaint narratives on an opt-in basis in its public complaints database.
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
3108 - 5th Ave., Suite A, San Diego, CA 92103
bethg ( at ) privacyrights.org